Are Online Transcription Services Safe and Private?

by Matthew Hughes

A digital voice recorder and pen sitting on top of a notepad.

Transcription was once a manual, tedious process. Doctors, journalists, and a swath of assorted professionals would record their notes and conversations on scratchy Dictaphone tape, and then sit down in front of their computers to type them up.

Fast-forward to 2020, and there are a variety of services you can use to turn an audio recording into text on a computer screen. However, one question remains: Are they safe? After all, you might be uploading voice recordings of sensitive conversations and private voice mails.

Let’s take a look at these services, and how you can protect your information.

How Audio Transcription Services Work

Audio transcription services tend to fall into three camps. The first is entirely computer-driven and uses existing AI and machine learning models to process the conversation. The second is the most expensive because people do the heavy lifting. The third is a combination of computer processing and humans.

Odds are you’re probably most familiar with the first category. Voice transcription services—like those offered by Google, Apple, and—convert the analog waves your voice creates into a digital representation. It then breaks them into small (sometimes, one-thousandth of a second) segments and matches them to known “phonemes,” or elements of a language.

These algorithms then try to examine them within the context of other phonemes and put them through statistical and AI models that ultimately produce text. Because these transcription services are entirely computer-driven, they tend to be the most inexpensive to run. However, accuracy isn’t always on-point, particularly when it comes to extracting text from noisy or multi-person environments.

Human-powered transcription involves dedicated platforms, like Rev, that connect customers with a pool of pre-approved transcribers. You can also hire someone from a freelance marketplace, like Upwork or Fiverr, to transcribe for you.

Finally, there’s the mix of the two. To expedite the transcription process, some sites allow AI to do the preliminary work, and then someone tidies up the output and fixes any mistakes.

Transcription Services Behaving Badly

In recent years, many transcription services have been subject to breaches and scandals.

Perhaps the oldest (and, arguably, most shocking) was SpinVox, which, in the ’00s, offered a service that turned voice mails into SMS messages. At the time, this was regarded as nothing short of a technological breakthrough. The firm quickly attracted positive press, customers, and vast moats of funding.

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